If you’re looking for an incredibly scenic drive near Phoenix, Arizona that can be completed in a day or two that also offers excellent camping opportunities, then the Apache Trail (Arizona-88) is right for you. Indeed, President Theodore Roosevelt, who traveled the 39-mile long route in 1911, called the Apache Trail “one of the most spectacular best-worth-seeing sights of the world.”
The Apache Trail has an interesting history. The road is actually hundreds of years old and was first blazed by the Apache Indians who used the route to move through the Superstition Mountains. In support of the newly authorized Roosevelt Dam, which was authorized by Congress in 1903, the communities of Salt River valley realized that a modern road didn’t exist to facilitate construction of the dam. As a result, a project to construct the road began in August 1903 and in September 1905 the route was finished. In 1915, the road was officially dubbed the Apache Trail and in 1987 it was officially dedicated as Arizona’s first historic highway.
Finding the Apache Trail is easy. The western entrance of the trail begins in the town of Apache Junction near the base of the beautiful Superstition Mountains. You can get to the Arizona-88 by taking either the Brown Rd. exit (Exit 26) off the Arizona-202 or the Idaho Rd. exit (Exit 196) off the US-60. Or if you prefer, you can enter the trail on the eastern end by taking the Arizona-188 at Roosevelt Lake.
Nestled in between the Four Peaks and Superstition Wilderness Areas in the Tonto National Forest, the Apache Trail serves as a gateway to breathtaking, virgin scenery. Varying in elevations between 1,715 feet to 3,050 feet, the trail will take you through bronze-colored canyons, past pristine mountain lakes, and around rocky, jagged peaks. Wildlife is plentiful on the Apache Trail, too, including herds of big horn sheep, elk, and wild horses. There are plenty of vistas and pull-offs along the way where you can stretch your legs and take pictures, so make sure your camera is ready.
Motorists should be warned that driving the Apache Trail can have its challenges. The 22-mile-long stretch between Tortilla Flat and the Roosevelt Dam in unpaved, so you’ll be driving on rough, washboard surfaces in places. This portion of the route also includes a spectacular and dizzying 1,000 foot drop down Fish Creek Hill (mile post 225.5) at a 15 to 17 percent grade. You’ll need to be on your toes as you drive down this hill as the road twists and turns and narrows in places where only one vehicle at a time can pass (the road is so narrow here that we had to pull in our driving mirrors to provide sufficient clearance for vehicles driving in the opposite direction to pass). The trail also features numerous switchbacks and blind, hair-pin turns that will also require your undivided attention.
While most passenger cars can safely navigate the Apache Trail, I recommend a Jeep, truck, or SUV. Small RVs are okay, too. However, the National Forest Service strongly discourages large RVs and towing trailers of any kind. I know several who have successfully towed short Airstream travel trailers down Fish Creek Hill, but it was still a white-knuckle experience for them. Due to this hill and some of the hair-pin turns you’ll encounter throughout the trail, I wouldn’t recommend towing a boat, travel trailer or fifth wheel longer than 22 feet (those towing trailers to any marinas and campgrounds other than Tortilla Flat are advised to take the east entrance). We found that the truck camper is an ideal RV for driving the Apache Trail. I’d also recommend anything similar like a Class B or small Class C motorhome.
The Apache Trail is best driven slow during those times when traffic is at a minimum (our average speed was around 15-20 mph). Few things are more annoying than tourists who are in a hurry and who ride your rear end. When this happens, it’s best to let such drivers pass. That’s what we’ve done when we’ve driven it and this approach has made things much more enjoyable. Traffic wise, the weekends are the busiest, so the trail is best driven on a weekday. As for the time of year, we found that during the fall and winter is best and experiences far less traffic.
For those who own a tent or an RV, there are numerous locations along the trail where you can boondock or dry camp for the night. The best locations are the pull offs and roads located along Fish Creek and Davis Wash and a few select areas east of the Burnt Corral Campground, like the Upper Burnt Corral and the Three Mile Wash Recreation Area. Excellent pull-offs and trails where you can boondock can be found between Tortilla Flat and Fish Creek Hill as well.
For the less adventurous, the Apache Trail offers two developed campgrounds and an RV park. Large campgrounds can be found at the Lost Dutchman State Park and at Canyon Lake. Full hookups, except for electricity, are offered at all of the sites. The Apache Lake Marina and Resort offers a small RV Park with full hookups, but with only 12 narrow sites and at $25 a night, I wouldn’t recommend it. If overnight parking in a parking lot is more your style, there are plenty of places around the Apache Lake Marina where you can park for only $8 a night with a Tonto National Forest camping permit. Or if you prefer, you can stay at one of the five National Forest Service campgrounds located along Theodore Roosevelt Lake on the Arizona-188 just after you exit the trail.
Of all the campgrounds and facilities found along the Apache Trail, the Burnt Corral Tonto National Forest Campground is the best. Located on Apache Lake between the aforementioned Apache Lake Marina and Resort and the Roosevelt Dam, this gem of a campground offers fully developed dry camping sites with each featuring a picnic table, a fire pit, and a grill. Fresh water spigots are also located throughout the campground. The campground facilities include pit restrooms, a group camping area, a beach and swimming area, and a large boat ramp. Like the Apache Lake Marina, the cost to camp at Burnt Corral is only $8 a night with a Tonto National Forest camping permit, a real bargain.
Besides sightseeing, the Apache Trail offers several attractions and activities the whole family can enjoy. These include boating, fishing, and swimming as well as hiking (there are several developed trails on the route), horseback riding and mountain biking. You can also visit the tourist towns of Goldfield and Tortilla Flat, if you’re into that sort of thing. We enjoyed visiting the Superstition Mountain Museum located about four miles north of Apache Junction. Inside you can view Indian relics and pottery as well as the Peralta Stone Map which reportedly pinpoints the location of the famous Lost Dutchman gold mine. We also enjoyed viewing the massive Theodore Roosevelt Dam, which essentially marks the eastern end of the Apache Trail. A few miles beyond the dam off the Arizona-188 you can tour the Tonto National Monument Indian Cliff Dwellings.
The Apache Trail is truly an under appreciated gem in the scenic state of Arizona. While the Grand Canyon and Sedona get most of the publicity and tourists, there are other sights in the state that are equally compelling and awe-inspiring. The Apache Trail is one such sight. President Theodore Roosevelt said it best when he said that, “the Apache Trail and surrounding area combines the grandeur of the Alps, the glory of the Rockies, the magnificence of the Grand Canyon and then adds an indefinable something that none of the others have.”